Liberal arts skills a good fit for jobs

Published November 24 2012

What skills do employers value most in judging their new hires? Strong verbal communication, a solid work ethic, teamwork, analytical ability and initiative, according to a report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. This nearly exactly matches the skill set of students with degrees in the liberal arts.

This fact is worth keeping top of mind when judging the value of a college degree — and, in particular, a college major — in this tough economic environment. The New York Times has documented how over the past five years the weak U.S. economy has brought jobless and underemployment rates for recent college graduates across the country to an all-time high. And the Tampa Bay Times recently concluded a series on the difficulties faced by three New College of Florida students as they searched for jobs in the first six months after graduation. While no college president likes to see students from his or her institution struggling as they begin their careers, the challenges faced by those three students are not unique to New College, and I want to thank Times staffer Lane DeGregory for raising an important issue facing our society.

Some argue that the high rate of unemployment among recent graduates results from the types of degrees being offered at the undergraduate level both by large research institutions and by small liberal arts colleges like New College. According to this thinking, if more students pursued degrees in job-ready fields like education, accounting and engineering, they would be able to find work more easily.

While there is some evidence to support the notion that graduates with vocationally oriented degrees have an easier time than their peers in finding employment directly out of college, the unemployment numbers among those groups are still too high. Furthermore, there is little evidence to suggest that such degrees retain their economic advantage over time. The highest wage earning fields in the country — medicine, law, scientific and business management and computer technology — generally require advanced degrees.

Given the reality of the current economy, helping students find employment after graduation requires plenty of hard work, not only on the part of the students seeking jobs but on the part of our colleges and universities and the business community as well. At New College, we are attempting to do our part by placing greater emphasis on career counseling services and better aligning those services with student and academic life on campus. We also are redoubling our efforts to reach out to the business community to bring more recruiters to campus and to develop internships for students while they are in school so they can gain workplace skills that will be to their advantage after graduation. In talking with college presidents from around the state and across the country, I know that we are not alone in these efforts targeted at helping our students achieve employment success, regardless of the career paths they choose.

But we need to work harder with the business community to get them to take a chance on hiring these bright young men and women who can help build their businesses for years to come. Acclaimed marketing consultant Robert Goldfarb, author of What's Stopping Me from Getting Ahead?, put it well in a New York Times article headlined "How to Bridge the Hiring Gap": "At one time employers recruited liberal arts graduates whose broad education shaped an inquiring mind and the ability to evaluate conflicting points of view." The merit of such hiring practices is on display in many Fortune 500 board rooms today, where liberal arts graduates make up more than 15 percent of all CEOs. Yet, in recent years, companies have drifted away from this practice, turning instead to hiring only graduates who have immediately accessible skills. While such practices may make sense on the surface, Goldfarb thinks they are a mistake. "I've found many broadly educated employees to be quicker than technical staff members to develop the intuition that's crucial on a work floor where gray — not black or white — is the dominant color," he states.

Because of the recent articles in the Tampa Bay Times, we were immediately contacted by a high-tech firm in the state that was excited to learn about the quality and skills of our graduates. They opened their door for interviews. It was a hopeful sign and one that we hope to interest other businesses in as well. Such partnerships and opportunities are an essential component in determining the long-term success of our young college graduates.

Donal O'Shea is president of New College of Florida. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.